Brande Nicole Martin

 
COURTESY OF BRANDE NICOLE MARTIN

COURTESY OF BRANDE NICOLE MARTIN

 
It is challenging for people to change the way in which they have worked for many years and to recognize that digital content experts are subject matter experts in their discipline.

Director, Digital Publishing, American Medical Association

Chicago, Illinois

The American Medical Association

 
 

How did you get started in content strategy?

Years ago, I came across a book called “Content Strategy for the Web” by Kristina Halvorson. After I read through this book, I thought “voilà”: I had been practicing elements of content strategy for most of my career.

In my early career, I worked in journalism and in editorial positions, focusing on writing and editing for medical journals and general interest newspapers. The rise of digital came about and gave me a new world to explore. I dabbled in Javascript, JAVA, PHP computer programming and other scripting languages and started along my path toward the blend of content and technology to create and design websites.

Working at the American Dental Association as a web manager of editorial services, I had the opportunity to partner with multiple stakeholders across the organization who were producing content for the website. They focused on two target audiences, dental patients and dental and allied professionals, so this is where I learned how to begin customizing content for different goals and customer journeys and to assess data to inform content direction.

Then, I spent 7 years in news and editorial management at Medscape, part of WebMD, and later worked at the College of American Pathologists. I was fully immersed in content strategy and content marketing when the digital industry had begun to view these as disciplines in which we leveraged in leading our digital direction.

Currently, I am at the American Medical Association and as we continue to evolve our website as part of our digital transformation, I have increased my involvement in search engine optimization strategies and applications to support our content strategy and marketing efforts.  

All of my experience thus far has culminated into being involved with all areas of content strategy: content creation, modeling and management systems, audience/persona development, and governance and workflow.

You deal with a B2B audience of physicians, residents and medical students. What sort of challenges are unique to that audience and how do you deal with them?

Creating content for these audiences is only unique in that you are producing information for a highly educated and specialized audience compared with the general public.

The same principles apply in developing a content strategy for physicians, residents, and medical students. We have to provide a customer experience on our website and digital properties that gives our audience content and information that meets their user needs and aligns to our goals and mission of our organization. We must use metrics to monitor engagement and drive content decision-making.

The challenges relate more to keeping pace to produce quality content and determine the best ways to present and distribute content. Should the content created be a web page, infographic, video, or combination? Do you use the website, email or social channel to get content to the users? We want to create content that attracts our audience and engages them to return to find products and services that give them solutions to manage their careers.

The AMA has undergone 2 major website redesigns in the past 4 years. Could you tell us a little bit about that, specifically 3 areas? What was the impetus for these initiatives? 

When I joined the organization in 2015, the goals were to do a complete overhaul of the website as part of the overarching initiative to shift the organization into a digital-first mindset. Our senior leadership had the vision to begin a digital transformation of our website, other digital platforms and systems and products.

I was responsible for leading a team to perform content audits, rework content based on audience needs, set up an editorial workflow/governance, integrate basic on-page SEO tactics and to partner with our design and IT teams to set up new templates and migrate to a new content management system, respectively.   

By remaining agile and leveraging our metrics, we redesigned the website again in 2018, changing the site to become a media-based platform. We want to stay current with the digital marketplace, and our senior leadership has paved the way for us to do that through our overall digital strategy.  

We want to reach our target audiences more effectively through digital experiences and center on delivering a customer experience that puts AMA at the forefront as the primary go-to source for physicians, residents and medical students throughout their medical careers.

Did you encounter stakeholder resistance to the redesigns and content strategy, and if so, how did you address it?

Yes, my team and I received a lot of stakeholder resistance across the 15+ business units that produce content for the website when we initiated the redesign. It is challenging for people to change the way in which they have worked for many years and to recognize that digital content experts are subject matter experts in their discipline. The ways that I have addressed it include: (1) respecting the stakeholder’s frustration and uncertainty about the changes, (2) listening and understanding their point of view, (3) explaining why the changes are occurring and how it can benefit and enhance their work, (4) relying on organizational goals and objectives as the foundation for the changes, (5) upholding the organizational standards and digital best practices, and (6) building a relationship with the stakeholder, keeping them informed, showing them examples, and being transparent throughout the process.

Having a blend of compassion, respect, directness and resilience helps in working through change management endeavors with resistant stakeholders.

What kind of results have you seen from it?

With the first redesign, the main result was establishing a more stable CMS for content editors to perform content publishing. This gave us a better foundation from which to iterate for our next phase in the transformation. Our content strategy evolved as well for the 2018 site, and we are seeing an uptick in traffic coming to the site with the media-forward approach along with our focus on improving our SEO strategies to make content more discoverable.

The AMA migrated to a new content management system (CMS). Can you tell us a little about how that newfound speed and flexibility allows AMA to react to market changes and better engage its audience?

In close partnership with our IT team, we selected Drupal as our new content management system, and it has allowed the digital content and editorial teams more flexibility to produce content and build web pages quickly. As the market fluctuates, we can transition more rapidly with designing new templates and adding any plug-ins, allowing us to ultimately meet our customer’s needs.


 

Sarah Richards

 
COURTESY OF SARAH RICHARDS

COURTESY OF SARAH RICHARDS

 
...organizations will see they are going to be left behind if they don’t get their butts in gear.

Founder, Content Design London

Twickenham, UK

Content Design London

 
 

How did you get into this field? 

I studied design. But, at the time, copywriters earned more money. I was a mercenary 19-year-old so I switched disciplines. I spent time in ad agencies then went to work on a digital government project. I was hooked and stayed.

Congrats on speaking and leading a workshop at Confab this year! On two very different topics, accessibility and measuring content ROI. Is there a connection?

For me there is. Scope says there are 13.9 million people in the UK with a disability. That’s a lot of audience organizations will miss if they don’t provide accessible solutions.

We say measure the intention of the content. Not the format or the delivery. Just the intention. We also measure success and value differently. To do this, you need to have defined what each piece of content is meant to do. Example: if your content is meant to help a prospective chemistry student apply to a university, success might be to make the 'top 10 universities to study chemistry' of a well-respected source but it’s not valuable. Value is to have the student visit the campus open day and apply. We advise looking at traffic as a single metric to be taken with other metrics. Alone, it's meaningless. Clickbait may get a million likes but if you are instantly forgettable, is that valuable? I don’t think so. So we take the intention of the content (eg: show chemistry students what they can achieve with us) and measure it appropriately. It does mean that the intention needs to be clearly defined. Putting up content because someone in the organization thinks it is a good idea is not going to cut it. Each piece needs to be set to a user need. I’ve blogged about the different ways to do that.

What were some of the challenges of working with content for the UK government? What did you enjoy most about it?

This made me laugh. Some of the challenges? I could go on for weeks just on one of them: the main one was people. We work all over the world and the challenge is always the same: some hate change, some organizations impose change on their staff badly and most organizations still work in silos.

Change can be hard and we didn’t always get it right at GOV.UK. For my part, I saw a goal and just kept my eyes on the prize. There were points where I didn’t act kindly. I was more like a human bulldozer. But I learned from it and we now have some great results bringing people together during organizational change. We have a much kinder, better approach that works very well.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about content design?

There’s two: one is that it is front-end design. We get a lot of designers not reading job descriptions and sending off standard letters and CVs to our jobs. We always put the content part of the position in the first sentence so it’s unnecessary to get it wrong. The other is that it’s just another term for copywriting. The thing is, some copywriters do all that we do in content design. They get evidence, work to a user need, can influence the format the communication is to be displayed in etc. But most don’t. They are still given the format (”you have a tube ad, just write some words to go with this art direction”) and have no insight to audience (“your audience is everyone”). Content designers know that their audience is never everyone, there will be different ways to get to them and will be able to completely fulfill that user need. 

It’s changing though, which is great to see.

I feel like a lot of US organizations don’t understand what content strategy—let alone content design—is, and why it’s worthwhile. Do you face similar challenges in the UK and if so, how have you addressed them?

Oh yes. I haven’t been in an organization yet that has a strong content strategy. One with metrics and deliverables. We published an example strategy a while ago just to show what ours looks like. 

I think we are at a very exciting time. The organizations that are working to content strategy and design are having success. This is growing and organizations will see they are going to be left behind if they don’t get their butts in gear.

We run two-day courses and sprint work all over the world. A sprint is where we come in for two weeks and work on whatever project you have. We will take the org through the whole process: research, journey mapping, channel mapping, user stories, sketching, writing, crits, the lot. At the end of it, we have a ’show and tell’ for anyone in the org to see how user-centered and targeted their information can be in a very short space of time. This can lead to longer projects, where we do more. We always work in the open, inviting anyone interested in the organization to come and see the work. It’s the number one rule: show, don’t tell. Show everything you are doing.

We haven’t had an instance yet where people remain disengaged. Once staff see the outcome, they usually start moving to a more content-led position.

What changes do you see coming in content design in the next few years and how can we get ready for them?

I think more will pick it up and want to push it. We are focusing on accessibility and measuring the intention of content this year. I think we can go a lot farther than our current state. We are running a global project called the Readability guidelines if you would like to see what we are up to. 

The other thing on everyone’s radar seems to be voice search. We may see organizations realizing that concise content that answers a user need is the only way to go. I hope so.

The one thing I would like to see on everyone’s radar is concerted effort to break down silos. I see content and design people starting this but at organizational level, this change is still slow. Some marketing departments see digital as an add-on to their current, established job. Legal still thinks it’s their job to make content legally compliant, not to have someone understand the law that applies. With more organizations blogging about their digital successes, I think this will change too. To be honest, if orgs don’t change, they will be left behind.

 

Ania Mastalerz

 
PHOTO COURTESY OF ANIA MASTALERZ

PHOTO COURTESY OF ANIA MASTALERZ

 

User Researcher, Optimal Workshop

"...the role of design and information architecture is to be invisible – to emphasize content without obstructing it.."

Wellington, New Zealand

LinkedIn, where you can connect with me and chat about all things research
Mixed Methods, where you’ll find me writing and editing content on all things UX research

 

 
 

How did you get into user research? 

I’ve always wanted to work at the intersection of human behavior and technology. Straight out of University (where I studied Psychology), I started my career as a Questionnaire Designer at Statistics New Zealand where I worked on designing surveys for collecting national statistics.

At the time, we were going through a shift from paper to digital data collection, which gave me the opportunity to do a range of usability testing of online forms. The process of feeding basic human needs into complex systems really fascinated me, and I decided to seek out an opportunity to make research an integral part of my role, which is when Optimal Workshop came along.

What do you like most about it?

User research is revelatory on many levels. I enjoy continuously testing my own assumptions, often being wrong and learning from the process.

It teaches you to be humble and empathetic – two qualities I think we could all benefit from cultivating further.

I enjoy the challenge of finding common threads in people’s needs and looking at the different ways the technology we build can empower them.

How do you think content strategists could make better use of user research?

Once at a conference, I heard the phrase “Content first, because everything else is window dressing.” It didn’t sit well with me at first, but after some time I realized that the role of design and information architecture is to be invisible – to emphasize content without obstructing it.

For me, testing content is just as important as testing the visual design or information architecture of our website. A beautiful and seamless design doesn’t make for a great user experience. A great user experience is when someone can find the information they are looking for and walk away confidently knowing they understood it.

I love the idea of spending as much time designing the words we use as we do the visual and structural side. This article by Angela Colter does a great job of explaining the importance of content testing – and if there is one thing I think content strategy could learn from research, this is it.

You recently spoke on card sorting at the IA Summit here in Chicago. What are some new applications for card sorting that content strategists might use?

My talk focused on how something as familiar as an online card sort can have many different applications, outside of just information architecture. Some ideas that I think are particularly relevant for content strategists include:

1.   Understand brand voice and tone

Source a variety of adjectives that may describe your brand (Brand Deck is a great set). Ask your users to sort these into categories such as “[Your brand] is”, “[Your brand] is not” and “Does not apply”).

This will give you an understanding of how your users view your brand, and whether it aligns with how you want to be perceived.

2.   Crowdsourcing content ideas

This is an example we used when planning the UX New Zealand conference in 2016, but it can apply to any place that involves the creation of content, whether it’s an event or blog.

We sent out a closed card sort to our community asking them to group potential topics into groups that either interested them or didn’t. This helped us narrow down the focus of our event and select relevant speakers.

It was highly effective and helped us get a better understanding of our audience and their preferences, making sure we’re delivering content that is not only of a high quality, but also as relevant as possible.

3.   As an internal consultation tool

Closed card sorting is a great tool for quickly involving others in the decision making process, capturing the voice of a wider group without the need for face-to-face meetings.  You can use it with external or internal users or stakeholders to help answer questions like:

  • Where should we start?

  • What is the most important thing we should work on?

  • Where should this content live?

  • What are our desired project outcomes?

  • Where do we focus our efforts?

  • What needs the most work?


For more ideas on creative ways to use card sorting, you can check out my slides from IA Summit 2018 here.

Your IA Summit bio said you are inspired by the intersections between technology, design and human behavior. Can you give some examples of interesting findings you’ve seen? Or something that might surprise us about how people behave?

I’ve always been interested in information processing and how imperfect we are all when it comes to making sense of the world around us.

We all use shortcuts (aka heuristics) to help us make efficient judgements and decisions, and we’re all riddled with biases that we cannot control. To get an idea of just how many factors may be influencing our judgement at any time, I recommend checking out the Cognitive Bias Codex from Buster Benson.

I think it’s important to have an appreciation for how imperfect, irrational and unpredictable humans can be in navigating the world around them, and acknowledge that while design can help guide behavior, you can’t never truly design someone’s experience for them.

It’s an interesting challenge designing with cognitive limitations in mind, and it’s something worth paying attention in our own work too. Becoming more aware of our own intrinsic biases can help us a lot in reframing how we view problems and solutions in our work and daily life.